Bugs chewing up trees across the West, raising fire danger

The Salt Lake Tribune
By KIM NGUYEN | Associated Press
July 20, 2005

VAIL, Colo. – The mountain views along Red Stone Road suggest early autumn, with splashes of red, orange and a rusty brown dotting the green hillsides above the homes and condominiums of this Colorado resort town.

But this is July and those colors represent hundreds of pine trees that have been killed by beetles.

The tree mortality rate around Vail is striking, but it’s even worse in other parts of Colorado and around the West. It’s a problem that has grown sharply over the past several years: According to Forest Service figures compiled for The Associated Press, the acres of forest killed by beetles in 12 Western states jumped from 1.4 million in 1997 to 8.6 million last year.

Experts blame the infestations on a series of cold winters, hot summers and drought. These stands of dead trees _ from the Apache National Forest in western Arizona to Washington’s Olympic National Park and extending into Canada and Mexico _ are also prime fuel for catastrophic wildfires.

“Trees that have been infected by the beetle are ready to burn now on a hot day,” said Justin Dombrowski, fire management coordinator for the Boulder Fire Department.

Beetle outbreaks come in cycles and are determined in part by drought conditions and overall forest health. The extent of the current outbreak, however, has many people worried as the dead trees dry out and begin to fall, creating a canopy than can cause long, intense fires.

“As the trees die and the dead needles stay on the tree, those needles ignite much more readily than the green trees do,” said Paul Broyles, national fire operations program leader for the National Park Service in Boise, Idaho. “When you get more and more dead trees spread throughout, the fire danger is much more
increased.”

The Forest Service has removed some of the beetle-infested trees in an effort to reduce fire danger throughout the West. City workers in nearby Frisco, for example, have already removed some 3,000 lodgepole pines killed by beetles.

In this posh resort, the effort involves officials from town, Vail Resorts Inc., the Forest Service and others. The goal is to protect homes, property values and, if possible, the view.

A few hundred feet off Red Stone Road, Cal Wettstein and Cary Green of the White River National Forest spot a lodgepole pine that looks perfectly healthy to an untrained eye. Get close, however, and there are telltale signs of a deadly infestation: Yellow, chicken pox-like spots plague the trunk and little piles of saw dust lie
at the base _ all evidence of bug boring.

The two men cut off a layer of brown bark, exposing pores that have become the home of beetle larvae. There is a blue fungus left behind by the insects as they burrow under the bark, depriving the pine of moisture and nutrients it needs to survive.

Wettstein then pried out an adult beetle with his knife and held it up to the light on the tip of the blade. It was no bigger than the size of an ant and appeared harmless. But looks can be deceiving:

Thousands of beetles can attack a single tree, with each female capable of laying dozens of eggs under the bark. The insects stay inside until the next summer, when they emerge from the bark, and pick up where their parents left off.

“These are very small organisms that can pack a big punch,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Ore.

Many experts say there is no practical way to reduce beetle numbers. Spraying insecticide is too expensive, and the risks are too high to do prescribed burns in hot, dry conditions.

“Over the past 100 years, everyone has done everything they can to prevent the beetle activity,” said Matthew Koehler, director of the Native Forest Network, a conservation group based in Missoula, Mont. “People have cleared a mountainside, others have even used dynamite. And in the end, they didn’t work.”

Black, an entomologist and ecologist, said having a diverse array of trees in the forest will cut down on the number of bark beetles, as they are species-specific to each kind of pine. For instance, mountain pine beetles attack a variety of pines, like the lodgepole and ponderosa, but they aren’t interested in Douglas firs.

According a Forest Service report last August, mountain pine beetle attacks were found in every Western state and infected 2.2 million acres in 2003, up from 1.5 million in 2002.

Black said the mountain pine beetles are doing the most damage in the current outbreak.

“There’s less tree diversity, less diversity in size and age, and that’s allowed the beetles to spread easily in large areas,” he said.

Black said logging is partly to blame for the uniform forests and for destroying potential nesting areas for woodpeckers, a natural enemy of the beetles. He stopped short of dismissing logging altogether.

“Communities do need to be making sure that people’s lives and property aren’t adversely affected by wildfire because of the beetle outbreak,” Black said. “But we oppose the big salvage operations because there will be less diversity in the forests.”

Others say hauling out the trees could lead to an imbalance in forests that can use the deadwood to slowly “reset” themselves.

“To be quite honest, the human perception is really a problem here because we do things in a quick fix,” Koehler said. “Yes, it may take hundreds of years for a forest to look like it used to, but that doesn’t mean to do logging. The beetles are an important web of life.”


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